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5 stars

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Taika Waititi’s children’s fable is a wondrous achievement, a beautiful story of the primacy of love in an era of hate, and a rare edifying film that can be enjoyed and appreciated equally by parents and children.  The year is 1944, and JoJo is a zealous member of the Hitler Youth at a time when for Nazi Germany, the end is nigh.  So complete is JoJo’s fealty to National Socialism that he has an imaginary friend, Adolf Hitler himself (Waititi), who guides him through the insults and indignities of adolescence while keeping JoJo’s eyes on the greater menace.  For Jo Jo, the former includes being a weakling in his Hitler Youth contingent, a deceased sister, and a missing father.  The latter is the omni-presence of true vampires in his daily life, said vampires being Jews.  Until JoJo realizes that not only does he have his own Anne Frank in residence, but his mother (Scarlett Johannson) is not the committed Nazi he once revered.

There are traces of Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom in Waititi’s parable, and even a little bit of Roberto Begnigni’s Life is Beautiful, but the kitsch and pathos of those films are muted.  The Nazis are broadly comic, from the disaffected leaders of Jo Jo’s Hitler Youth squad (Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen) to the local Gestapo (Stephen Merchant), to Hitler himself, a gossipy, anachronistic cartoon of a cohort who engages a brain-washed JoJo in the manner of a Valley Girl on Snapchat.

Waititi has a deft touch with child actors, a skill shown here as well as in his hilarious and moving The Hunt for the Wilderpeople.  He depicts them not as precious or wise beyond their years, but rather, as they are, low on guile and high on instinct and snap judgment.  Even in his film What We Do In The Shadows, Waititi treats his characters (New Zealand vampires who are the subject of an MTV-esque “The Real World”) as silly teens (though they are, of course, thousands of years old), negotiating house tensions, competition with werewolves, and the internet with easy hurt and immediate wonder.  The results are always piercingly funny and clever.

Critics either explicitly or implicitly evince discomfort at the use of Hitler for such silly purposes (“a sugary fantasy in the most unlikely places…But in the process, it buries the awful truth” or “Waititi’s silly, irreverent performance takes the pomp and vigor out of the blustering Fuhrer, declawing the towering 20th century figure of hate. However, in doing so, he declaws his own satire, too”).  These takes are both unsurprising and depressingly easy, but if you think Hitler is simply too monstrous to lampoon, you are forewarned.

Even if it is a bridge too far, I strongly recommend you traverse it.  This is a beautiful, satisfyingly quirky coming of age film, natural and notable for its sweetness.  I’m not sure if it was the best film of last year, but it is the one I enjoyed best.

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A touching and heartfelt tribute to a matriarch.  Smart, deep and without an ounce of treacle, this is the holiday movie you should watch instead of the grotesque Love, Actually.  Upon hearing of the terminal cancer diagnosis for her Nai Nai (grandmother), Billi (Awkwafina), who left China when she was seven, returns from New York with her family (along with other family members from abroad) to say their goodbyes.  The twist is that, per custom, no one can reveal the diagnosis so as not to upset Nai Nai in her final months.  Indeed, Billi, a struggling student who has just been rejected for a fellowship, was specifically asked not to make the trip because her parents thought she was too emotional and incapable of adhering to the compact.

What follows is a loving and funny rendering of Billi’s family as well as her own immersion into Chinese culture and the clash that comes with it.  First time writer-director Lulu Wang’s second feature is confident and multi-layered, and her visual sense, depicting China in an almost dreamlike state, emphasizes Billi’s trepidation and confusion.  The film is also slyly funny, capturing the idiosyncratic bond of family that survives no matter the time apart or the geographical separation.  One of the best of the year.

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A beautiful, creative meditation on what home is, what your place is, and how it can become foreign, lost or taken right under your feet, the picture is subversively political without one overt pronouncement. Writer-director Joe Talbot’s first time feature is so assured and deeply thought out, it is astounding.

Jimmy, a native San Franciscan, reclaims his boyhood home in the city after the owners vacate in an estate dispute, which he has been surreptitiously tending to for years.   He just moves in. His bond is familial and aesthetic, as much to the house as the city, which has transformed right under his feet.  The house stands in for the community which becomes fractured and fungible, but community is never what you thought it really was.

This is an art film, but it is linear and focused. Moving and audacious, Talbot is a massive talent. I hope they give him an Avengers franchise.

Yea, that may be against the grain and ethos of the film, but he can still do art films!

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A gut-busting, loose re-make of Superbad, this time with girls (Beanie Feldstein and Kaitlyn Dever standing in for Jonah Hill and Michael Cera). It’s hard to overpraise the chemistry these two have, which enhances the laughter that comes in the set pieces as well as the seams.  This is their movie, and the bond and brilliance is evident form the first time we see them together.

They’re supported by a troupe of high school classmates so smartly drawn and crisply written, the whole “graduation night blowout” endeavor feels fresh. First-time director Olivia Wilde not only has an effortless command of pace and movement, but she also dazzles with three ingenious vignettes – a brief bad trip where the girls become Barbie dolls, Dever underwater in a pool (echoing both The Graduate and Boogie Nights) and Feldstein in a charming musical dance sequence.

The film is also very sweet and dare I say, uplifting. 

Masterful fun.  One of the best of the year.

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Twenty minutes in, my brother whispered to me, “I don’t know if this is going to be a good movie, but it’s a beautifully curated movie.”  He was dead on.  Quentin Tarantino doesn’t just re-create the look of 1969 Hollywood, he does it in a manner that somehow straddles classic homage and the hazy recollection of a local.  The town seems both wondrous and pedestrian.  Never were neon lights for Taco Bell or the Musso and Frank Grill so compelling.

Tarantino places two movie stars (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) in the midst of this mesmerizing visual portrait, the former playing a fading “almost made it” leading man reduced to working for cameos during “pilot season” and the latter his loyal stuntman/gofer.  And wouldn’t you know it, DiCaprio lives next to none other than Roman Polanksi and Sharon Tate, and hey, who was that scraggly hippie who skulked by the other day?

The film could have been cutesy or overly reverential, and when the likes of Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee and Mama Cass make appearances, I’ll admit, I was apprehensive.  But their scenes are both fun and important.  They assist in Tarantino’s portrait of Tinseltown as a much larger Mayberry, where everyone knows each other just to say howdy, but a lot of those everyones are someone.

Enmeshed in the slow-building run-up to the tragedy seared in our national consciousness (I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid I devoured Vincent Bugliosi’s “Helter Skelter”, and somehow, those white cut-outs of the bodies on Cielo Drive were more horrifying than any actual murder photo) are the stories of DiCaprio, who has lost his swagger and is negotiating his way down; Pitt, a man with a notorious reputation necessarily affixed to the fading star; and Tate (Margot Robbie), the ingénue representing the audience, agog at the magic around her and so excited about her future she can barely contain herself.  There is not a minute of their stories that isn’t engaging, and Tarantino leisurely walks them though the company town.

This is also Tarantino’s funniest film.  His dialogue has always been crackling, but he has moved on from bravura speeches and cool pop culture references, instead writing much more measured and subtle, with real heartfelt exchanges (his last film, The Hateful Eight, was a quantum leap in his maturity as a writer).  And while excess is Tarantino’s hallmark, and often his downfall, you may not believe me, but this picture is an exercise in restraint.

I would like to say more, but I don’t want to spoil anything or preview one of the more enjoyable movies I have seen in years.   Go now.

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Many museums offer documentary films covering the subject matter of the locale and event they memorialize.  The last one I saw was at the Holocaust Museum in a small alcove theater where you could get a respite from the vast tragedy to watch a short, continuously run film (the one I saw was about a particular figure and her trek from liberation to Israel).  At Antietam, a similar re-enactment film runs, explaining the day of battle, narrated by, I am almost certain, James Earl Jones.

At the outset, They Shall Not Be Forgotten, Peter Jackson’s documentary about the British experience in World War I, has the same feel.  It is simple black-and-white footage overlaid with the voices of those who fought the war recounting their experiences.  There are, however, critical and moving differences.

First, about one fourth of the way in, the black-and-white film comes to life in color, as Jackson has painstakingly restored over 100 hours of footage from the Imperial War Museum.  Jackson even employed lip-readers to approximate what was said by the men in the footage, giving the sense of a sound recording.  The effect is as if ghosts were revealed in the restoration.

Second, the memories are culled from 600 hours of interviews of 200 Great War veterans, who remain anonymous and speak of the every day experience rather than their role in the titanic struggle.  There are no names, and no battle or locale is identified.  You follow no particular individual, though you can discern the British voice in all its forms.  As such, you feel the collective experience without the shackles of a linear, fact-driven recitation.

Jackson’s film is also a generational memorial.  These men haven’t been educated in the ways of individualism and introspection and as you hear from them, you can glean a reluctance to speak, a “what is all the fuss?” mien.  This countenance rarely cracks, even as the horrors of the war pile up in their reminiscing.

As with Apollo 11, there is no historian or pundit or wag telling you what it all means.  These are the unvarnished recollections of men who would have been forgotten more quickly were it not for Jackson’s contribution.   A must watch and a cultural treasure.